Unions join students to protest school policies

By Lisa Schulz

Last week’s town hall meeting grew out of a Dec. 6 protest at which Columbia’s part-time faculty union, P-Fac, joined forces with staff and students to demand a chance to speak to the administration. For P-Fac, it would be the first contact since contract negotiations broke off five weeks ago.

Picket signs bearing President Warrick L. Carter’s photo and slogans such as “institutional continuity,” “chop from the top” and others requesting a fair contract and lower tuition bobbed from the gloves of Occupy Columbia protesters in the midst of a snowy Tuesday.

The voices were chanting loud enough to stop Allen Turner, chair of the board of trustees, who suggested that Diana Vallera, president of P-Fac, write a letter requesting a formal meeting. After Vallera expressed concerns about prioritization to Turner, she invited him to listen at the bargaining table. He laughed, she said. When prompted for a specific meeting time, Turner said he’d be “around,” according to Vallera.

Before the protest, Vallera said the administration had denied the union access to the school’s Listserv email software to get its point of view out to students and the community, as the college had been doing, she said.

“We have no voice, currently, in the institution,” Vallera said. “They’re not going to silence us. If we have to, we’ll go to the streets and get our word out.”

However, Len Strazewski, interim associate provost, said the college will present a draft contract of a “comprehensive offer” within the week. Conversations were halted to allow the groups to meet separately to arrange the contract, and P-Fac was alerted of the change, Strazewski said.

The federal mediator overseeing the bargaining sought small groups as the best method of discussing a fair contract. He withdrew from negotiations because the groups had expanded but said he would return when smaller groups were re-established, Strazewski said.

After protesting outside the board of trustees lunch meeting, members of P-Fac awaited Carter’s response in vain.

“That’s rude,” Vallera said as Carter walked past the remnants of the protesters from the luncheon at the 618 S. Michigan Ave. Building to the Alexandroff Campus Center, 600 S. Michigan Ave., surrounded by four security guards dressed in trench coats. “He knows me,” she said.

P-Fac’s protest against prioritization of classroom courses and instructors, along with a request for a different evaluation process, correlates with what Vallera sees as a decrease in the quality of education.

However, Strazewski said the announcement of improved retention rates from Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs, proves otherwise. There is no evidence supporting a decrease in quality, Strazewski said.

“I absolutely cannot believe that Diana can say that in public without realizing it’s an insult to her own members, to full-time faculty and to the students who work hard,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Some students and faculty were seen avoiding the protest by passing through the campus building. Passers-by stopped to observe, walked in the street or squeezed single-file past the growing circle march, monitored at the request of P-Fac by 28-year-old Ben Meyer, a legal observer from the National Lawyer’s Guild Chicago, denoted by a bright green cap.

Meyer’s duty was to protect constitutional rights and watch out for police misconduct, although he anticipated none. He didn’t foresee the protest getting out of hand, he said.

Along with full-time staff, part-time staff, including Columbia alumni, were also protesting to put a face to the demands for pay raises, said Mike Bright, president of the United Staff of Columbia College.

The protest offers a chance for all Occupy Columbia groups to unite under the principles of fairness, equitable pay and justice in the workplace, he said.

“Our students are dying under the burden of debt,” Bright said. “They talk about creating change—well, let’s create change from the top down, not from the bottom up.”

Along with the protest of tuition and student debt, some students, like Julio Martinez, freshman radio major, were present to support Occupy Columbia.

“There are a lot of good teachers as part-time faculty, but unfortunately, we can’t see them as often as we should, like a full-time professor,” Martinez said. Along with Columbia, he said, “a lot of schools seem to be acting as a for-profit organization as opposed to an institution for higher learning.”

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